Internet scam money trail leads to Martha's Vineyard
Photo courtesy of Edgartown Police
Edgartown police have traced a cyberspace trail through more than a dozen states in pursuit of a craigslist scam artist who cons people into sending money to Martha's Vineyard to buy a nonexistent all-terrain vehicle.
This week, they turned to their own high-tech tools, surveillance video, and their own new crime-fighting website, to track down the Internet thief.
Officer Michael Gazaille first began investigating the scam in December, when Brian Cullen called the Edgartown Police Department from Oregon, Wisconsin.
Mr. Cullen saw an advertisement posted on craigslist, the wildly popular online aggregation of free classified ads offering everything imaginable for sale from locations around the world. The ad offered a Polaris four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) for sale. The price was $2,920.
The seller directed Mr. Cullen to an eBay web page where the well-known online auction market arranges escrow service for people buying and selling items at a distance. The escrow service holds the money, until the buyer gets the merchandise and approves the sale. Then the service releases the money to the seller.
Except, it wasn't really an eBay web page. It was a spoof, intended to look like a page on the eBay site, although Officer Gazaille said there were some fairly obvious clues that something was amiss.
Mr. Cullen filled in all the information required by the fake web page. The seller instructed him to wire the $2,920 price to Martha's Vineyard, by Western Union's money transfer service.
He did. Big mistake.
Someone picked up the money at the Stop & Shop grocery store in Edgartown, which offers Western Union money transfer service. The suspect listed an Oak Bluffs address on the form. Asked for the required identification, he showed the clerk an Illinois driver's license issued to Luri Kankadze. Police could not find anyone by that name in any local records. He is not at the address he listed. Police assume that the I.D. was also a fake.
When Officer Gazaille began to untangle the web of deceit, his investigation seemed to branch in hundreds of directions.
"It's frustrating," Mr. Gazaille said. "You want to get the FBI involved, but they're completely overwhelmed, unless you're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of scams."
But he kept at it, though he doesn't have any special training in cyber-crime fighting. He learned as he went along, using the Internet.
He got a subpoena for information about the email accounts that had been used. After more than a week, the mail services sent him 48 pages of information.
"They'll give you information on the last two months," Mr. Gazaille said. "Emails sent, where they were sent from. Most of them were in the Kansas area."
The seller listed the location of the non-existent ATV as Montana. The seller sent email from hundreds of different locations. Those turned out to be public places such as coffee shops, libraries, and other outlets that provide free wireless internet service, open to anyone.
The Edgartown officer followed the money and discovered something interesting. Michael Cummings, of Glencove, Ontario fell for the same scam. Same craigslist advertisement, same price, same amount wired by Western Union to Martha's Vineyard. This time the suspect picked up the money at the Stop & Shop in Vineyard Haven.
"The only connection to the Vineyard was the money was actually wired to the Vineyard," Mr. Gazaille said.
But he also discovered what looked like many other attempts to con unsuspecting buyers.
"It's probably a bigger scam than the Vineyard," Mr. Gazaille said. "Kansas, New York, a couple were sent from Illinois. Texas police are involved."
If Mr. Gazaille were a fireman, he might fight fire with fire. But he is a police officer, so he fought a cyber thief with cyber tools. Posing as an interested buyer, he answered the craigslist advertisement, which was still posted online.
"I went back and forth with these people for a couple of weeks," Officer Gazaille said. "They went through the same process with me. I was hoping they would send the money here. But at the last second, they wanted me to send the money to a different guy at a different place."
Though the investigation stopped just short of the point of money changing hands, police considered sending an actual wire transfer of money, hoping to nab a suspect when he picked it up on-Island.
"We were thinking about it," Mr. Gazaille said. "We talked about it for a while." Police sometimes use real money during their investigations. District attorneys may keep funds for that purpose in closely monitored accounts. The source of the money is often cash seized during drug investigations.
All attempts to catch the cyber criminal have not yielded a suspect. But police do have some important clues. By going through Western Union records, Mr. Gazaille found the time the thief picked up the money, and matched that to surveillance camera images. The same person picked up the money at the two different Stop & Shop locations.
Officer Gazaille asks that anyone who recognizes the images published in today's Times call the Edgartown police department's crime tip line at 774-310-1190.
Police have surveillance video, which could offer further clues. The two-minute 42-second video, posted on the police department's new website shows the suspect filling out the Western Union paperwork and speaking briefly with the Stop & Shop clerk, as well as a store patron who was next in line at the counter.
If police can catch up with the thief, he will face charges of larceny and wire fraud.
Online marketplaces like craigslist and eBay display prominent warnings about fraud and how to prevent it. Though they thought they were taking precautions by using the fake E-bay escrow service, the two victims in this case violated several simple guidelines posted in multiple places on both sites.
"Deal locally with folks you can meet in person," warns craigslist under the link "avoid scams and fraud," on its home page. "Follow this one rule and avoid ninety-nine percent of scam attempts on craigslist."
Another warning in bold type advises against using a money transfer service.
"Never wire funds via Western Union, Moneygram, or any other wire service. Anyone who asks you to do so is a scammer."
There are several places to report Internet fraud.
Victims of cyber-crime may file reports at the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) operates a telephone help line where you can get information about identity theft and other on-line crimes. The number for the FTC is 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338). Complaints can also be filed at that number.
Collectively, federal, state, and local law enforcement receive many thousands of complaints about Internet fraud. As Officer Gazaille found out, tracking down the perpetrators is a frustrating and time-consuming process.
The reports help investigators track trends, discover new scams, and issue appropriate warnings. But it is unrealistic to expect individual cases of fraud will be solved, and the money returned to the victims.
The best way to do that, Officer Gazaille says, is be wary enough to steer clear of the con in the first place.